Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 11 a.m. ET.


Ben Pershing: Morning, everyone. I'm very upset about the Dodgers' loss last night, but very happy to be chatting with all of you about health care, Congress, the White House and whatever other subjects are on your collective mind. Let's begin.


Washington, D.C.: I still can't believe that Obama has revived the Nixon-era policy of making a media enemies list and the left in this country is cheering him on? Can you imagine if Bush would have done something like this? People would be screaming...he is destroying the Constitution!

That's why there is no left in this country. It's all partisan. It's okay when my guy does it, but not yours.

Ben Pershing: I understand your argument, but I think there is a difference between what the White House is doing -- criticizing Fox -- and what Nixon did, which included spying on reporters, etc. Remember, the Clintons complained about media witch hunts, and Bush's folks complained about the liberal media. What the White House is doing now is particularly unusual just because of the way they're attacking one outlet so aggressively.

The other issue is whether it's strategically smart for the White House to be doing this. Ruth Marcus makes a good argument this morning for why it's a "dumb" idea.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you think the Post's news judgment is correct in not covering Anita Dunn's remark that Mao is one of her favorite political philosophers?

Ben Pershing: Yes, I do.


Sugar Land, Tex.: I'm wondering if the Obama administration is using the wrong tactic to confront Fox News. What do you think the result would be if they adopted the exact opposite approach -- that is make an attempt to convey their message by interacting with and appearing as much as possible on Fox News? Sure, the average viewer of Fox is certainly bound to be somewhat hostile to Obama, but I say smother them with love! Who knows, he might even win some Fox viewers over if they see him giving command performances with commentators and pundits that they like.

Ben Pershing: That's part of the argument Marcus made. The bottom line is that Fox News Channel is the highest-rated of the three news channels. And while some Fox viewers may be unreachable for this White House and would never support Obama, surely millions of them are Independents and people who can be persuaded on some issues. Why alienate that audience?

_______________________ Obama's dumb war with Fox News (PostPartisan, Oct. 19)


Falls Church, Va.: Does the Post make the full text of its poll questions available anywhere? A big part of interpreting polls is knowing what questions were asked before the main question. I.e., if you're asking respondents whether they support or oppose a public option, it's significant whether the preceding questions have been softening them up toward the public option or hardening them to it. Data: Washington Post-ABC News Poll (Post, Oct. 20)

Ben Pershing: Yes, the full text of the questions is in the link above. The public option question is the 8th one, and I don't see any preceding questions that would necessarily have influenced respondents for or against the public option. It's also significant that the Post has been asking the question with the same wording for months, making it useful to compare this result with past ones.


St. Paul, Minn. : Hi Ben -- Thanks for taking questions today. Polling shows that a clear majority of Americans want a public option. Yet we see all this dithering about whether there are 60 votes for it in the Senate. What's the problem? If a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress can't get this thing done now, will they ever?

Ben Pershing: Well, "all this dithering about whether there are 60 votes for it in the Senate" is about exactly that -- whether there are 60 votes in the Senate. Just about every Republican in the chamber, with the exception of Olympia Snowe and perhaps one or two others, is dead-set against the Democratic reform plans. Snowe herself is only open to a public option "trigger." And Ben Nelson and a few other conservative Democrats are also hedging. The math is the math in the Senate, regardless of whether you agree with what individual senators are doing.


Obama v. Fox: Maybe if the supposedly mainstream press stopped treating Fox like a real news outlet the White House wouldn't have to. When have CNN or even MSNBC sponsored (ginned up) news stories like "tea parties" and slopped a hard editorial slant from sun-up to sundown? Putting Shep Smith on the payroll doesn't even that out. And who knew Chris Wallace was such a whiner?

Ben Pershing: I'm not going to get into a debate over individual Fox stories or tactics, but I would say that MSNBC has become pretty openly liberal in recent years, and the White House obviously talks to them.


Ruth Marcus makes a good argument this morning for why it's a "dumb" idea. : A had an even better idea; let the White House ignore Fox entirely. Don't declare that you're not going to talk to such a biased outfit; just continue to turn down invitations without trumpeting why. Fox doesn't deserve the attention and likes the martyr status it's trying to acquire.

Ben Pershing: I suppose that's another way to go. But again, it's always risky to actively decide to ignore an outlet that has millions of viewers.


Springfield, Va.: Washington Post polling consistently uses a sample population in which those leaning toward the Democratic party outnumber those leaning Republican by 10-12 percent. I seem to remember the most recent national election was about 52-48 (and closer in Virginia) -- so why the imbalance? Doesn't this skew your results to the left?

Ben Pershing: Every pollster weights their samples differently but all of them, as far as I know, include more self-identified Democrats in their samples than Republicans. See the Fox poll below as one example.

_______________________ Fox News Poll Opinion Dynamics


False Equivalency: Fox News is NOT MSNBC: Hmmm. I don't recall Olbermann or Maddow going nuts on national television, scribbling away on a chalkboard as they fantasized about connecting George Bush to every conceivable strain of historical evil. And I don't remember either MSNBC host launching hateful and hollow witch hunts against semi-obscure administration officials, the way Hannity has latched onto the homophobic attacks against Kevin Jennings. Do you, Ben?

Ben Pershing: No, I don't. And I prefaced my comment by saying that I was not going to get into a debate about specific Fox stories or controversies. Only making the point that the "hard editorial slant" of any particular network shouldn't necessarily be enough to stop the White House from talking to them. The WH should also talk to National Review, which is conservative, and the American Prospect, which is liberal, and so on.


Bethesda, Md.: Ben -- a 20-point swing in the Public Option poll is -- I must say -- a little astonishing....but maybe not since the Post did it. Do you think they did their polling at the P Street Whole Foods, or outside DNC Headquarters?

Ben Pershing: Not sure what poll you're reading. There's no "20-point swing" here. The newest poll put support for the public option at 57 percent. Past WaPo polls have ranged from a low of 52 percent (in August) and a high of 65 percent (in June) on the same question.

That said, polling at the P Street Whole Foods isn't a bad idea. They have a delicious hot food bar.


Alexandria, Va.: Ben, when you wonder in "44" today whether the worst is over for Obama, do you really think cap-and-trade, card check, and immigration are going to be easier for the administration?

Ben Pershing: You're assuming the administration is going to actually do those three things. I think there definitely will be a push by Obama to do the climate change bill, but I have no idea if it will succeed. I don't see any evidence yet that the White House plans a real push to do card check or immigration any time soon.


Arlington, Va.: The interesting thing to me about the poll is that the public option has always been supported by a majority of respondents. This bit of data does not jibe with the overarching media construct that "the public" has been against the public option. Were you all just swayed by the loud voices at the town hall meetings screaming about their opposition rather than the poll data? Public option gains support (Post, Oct. 20)

Ben Pershing: I do think that the media as a whole may have misreported this story. I hope that I haven't. The problem is that the press often has a hard time covering polls, particularly when there are so many different surveys. There have, in fact, been some polls that showed the public option to be unpopular, perhaps because of the way the questions were phrased (for example, support goes way up when you make sure to include the word "option" or "choice.") But it's true that the majority of polls have clearly shown support for the public option, and I think the media is now (belatedly) reporting that fact.


Balitmore, Md.: Hi Ben, I am curious about all the hand-wringing concerning needing 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate -- and that it is essential to keep wavering Dems like Lincoln and Nelson on board with compromises. Sixty votes are only needed for cloture. Why can't the Dems compromise that everybody votes for cloture but the waverers can vote 'no' on the final bill and preserve their "principles" or perceived political skin? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: Democratic leaders would certainly love it if all 60 Democrats automatically voted with the party on cloture votes. But a conservative like Ben Nelson knows that the cloture vote is the only time he really has influence. On a straight majority vote, his doesn't matter. So he has to threaten to vote no in order to get a seat at the table. But if the other 59 Democrats go along -- and Olympia Snowe does too -- then Nelson isn't needed. That's what makes the courtship of Snowe so important.


Sydney, Australia: Concerning the Fox/White House imbroglio, one of the main defenses of Fox is that it was critical of Bush on such issues as immigration reform and the bailout. This was cited yesterday in discussions by both Howard Kurtz and Perry Bacon. However, Fox's actual criticism was that Bush's policies were too moderate. I can't think of one occasion where Fox attacked Bush, or any Republican, as being too far on the right. Can you?

Ben Pershing: I think your memory is correct. If Fox wants to make the case that it is not 100 percent supportive of Republicans, it can do that, but it's harder to make the case that it's not conservative.


Boston, Mass.: Beyond the "good news" that Karzai has accepted a runoff election, how do we ensure that he and his allies don't try to rig the runoff (learning to be a little more subtle this time)? Assuming Karzai wins a reasonably fair runoff, how do we ensure that the corrupt patronage system he sits atop doesn't continue -- undermining the population's confidence in our central government partner as we contemplate sending in substantially more U.S. troops?

Ben Pershing: I don't know the answer to your very good question, beyond the idea that the U.N. and other international monitors will likely try to do a better job watching for fraud this time, and the media will be paying much closer attention as well.


Fairfax, Va.: Presumably card check would be the quid pro quo for taxing Cadillac plans, yes?

Ben Pershing: That's one very cynical way of looking at it. It's true that unions are staunchly opposed to taxing the most expensive health-care plans, because many union members have them. Whether there's some sort of secret or implied deal in the works, I don't know. I do know that I haven't heard much talk here on Capitol Hill that card check would be coming up any time soon.


Indianapolis, Ind.: So Obama doesn't kick butt (in a verbal sense) like Bush did and therefore even if he gets what he wants from Congress he will have failed because he didn't get it while being macho?

Ben Pershing: Not sure whose theory you're describing or rebutting there.


Chicago, Ill.: One reason why the White House is roughing up Fox News is to throw a bone to Obama's base. Frankly, after watching the president bend over backwards for the right-wingers this year, it's good to see him take them to the woodshed, even if it's over something trivial like this. I like to know that my president still has a spine. Anybody who watches Fox News wasn't voting for Obama anyway.

Ben Pershing: I agree with the first part of your comment -- obviously the White House's criticism of Fox has helped to get the liberal base fired up. As I've said, though, I'm not sure about the second part. I believe that the strong majority of Fox viewers are conservative but it's not all of them. There are definitely Independents out there who watch Fox.


I understand your argument, but I think there is a difference between what the White House is doing -- criticizing Fox -- : You're absolutely correct, however what President Obama is doing is eerily similar to how regimes such as Putin in Russia and Chavez in Venezuela do to suppress media that disagrees with them. Think about it: he's refusing to go on and launching a campaign against a network simply because it disagrees with him on most issues. Very scary.

Ben Pershing: No, it's not like what Putin does in Russia or Chavez does in Venezuela. They both shut down networks and newspapers that disagree with them, and throw journalists in jail. Obama is doing nothing of the sort.


Rockville, Md.: Help me with this one. I read that if the two bills go to Conference and then the final Committee bill is voted on, that a simple majority (51) will pass it. Is that true?

It could make a difference.

Pass bill in Senate without public option, put option in at the Conference and pass it in Senate with 51 votes (or 50 - 50 and the VP).

But I only saw it in one place.

Ben Pershing: You can filibuster a conference report, but it happens rarely. Unlike other bills, you can't amend conference reports, so if you filibuster it you have to essentially talk forever, as opposed to waiting to get a vote on your amendment.


Marcus' column: Media Matters seems to have come up with a response:

"Does the WashPost's Ruth Marcus even watch Fox News?"

Does the WashPost's Ruth Marcus even watch Fox News? (MediaMatters, Oct. 20)

Ben Pershing: I saw that. I don't know if Ruth watches Fox. I would guess that she has watched it at some point.


Silver Spring, Md.: Was Snowe's vote really needed last week? Couldn't the bill have passed out of committee with a 13-10 vote?

Ben Pershing: Yes, it could have. But it was symbolically important for Obama and Democrats to be able to call the bill "bipartisan," and it's a key signal going forward that she could vote for the bill on the floor, where her support really will be needed.


"No, it's not like what Putin does in Russia or Chavez does in Venezuela. ": Thank you for that statement of sanity.

Ben Pershing: Thank you. I try to be sane at least half the time.


Fox News is not fair and balanced: You're exhibiting wishful thinking re: Obama being able to convince Fox News voters of the validity of his positions. It'll never happen. These are the same people who probably think he's born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim. And really, how many true independents do you know who watch the BS on Fox (Shep Smith aside)? They're almost certainly right-leaning.

Ben Pershing: A Pew Research survey released last year found that Fox viewers self-identified as 39 percent Republicans, 33 percent Democrats and 22 percent Independents. Maybe they're mostly "right-leaning" but that doesn't mean they're 100 percent unpersuadable.


Dallas, Tex.: "There are definitely Independents out there who watch Fox."

Hahahahahahha! You're cute when you equivocate.

Ben Pershing: See my last answer. But thanks for thinking I'm cute.


"Bipartisan" is a Beltway fetish... we don't care!: I only care that the legislation is strong and good. This whole focus on "bipartisanship" for the sake of "bipartisanship" is hogwash... as every poll -- including the latest health-care poll -- bears out. People just don't care if legislation is bipartisan. It appears only the media (and curiously legislators) do. Why is that?

Ben Pershing: Actually, polls are mixed on this question. The new WaPo poll does find a majority to say that they want a public option even if it doesn't have Republican votes. But a Quinnipiac poll released in early October found that 57 percent of respondents thought Congress should not approve a reform bill with only Democratic votes. And polls aside, the "bipartisan" tag gives Democrats cover against attacks in the midterm election. It's harder to criticize one party for voting for a particular bill if members of the other party did too.


Anaheim, Calif.: I'm sorry about the Dodgers last night Ben. But I'm an Angels fan and I wonder if my team has any more of a chance of beating the Yankees than the Dodgers have of coming back from being down 3-1.

Ben Pershing: I hope so. I grew up a Dodgers fan but always liked the Angels too, since there never really was a rivalry until recently.

And by default, I'll root for whoever plays the Yankees (unless it's the SF Giants).


Ben Pershing: Thanks as always for the fine questions, everyone. See you next time.


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